2011 BEST AGRICULTURE FEATURE STORY - NATIONAL
"The Master's Garden: Simulating how Mother Nature Works"
by: Marilou Guieb
LA TRINIDAD, Benguet - Benguet must be the “mecca” of Philippine agriculture, as it supplies 80 percent of the country’s vegetable needs. Until 2010, it has never earned the Gawad Saka presidential award given to outstanding accomplishments in agriculture.
Last year, Pat Acosta bagged the award after reaching back in time to rediscover the way farmers of long ago did their farming.
“It worked before. Why can’t it work now? God did not intend for farming that will feed His children to be complicated and hard,” Acosta said in tagging how his now well-known organic vegetables are produced.
Acosta said he does farming simulating the ways of nature, with the minimum of technology and interventions.
“Mother Nature cannot be wrong,” he said. But it was a tedious and long path that he took before finally reaching the simplest and most workable method for which he bagged the Gawad Saka award.
Acosta’s garden is called The Master’s Garden. He started it in 2000 when environmentalists started to raise serious concerns about the harmful side effects of chemical farming. He reflected on how to do farming differently, without destroying the soil with chemicals. He went to the Department of Agriculture but felt everywhere he turned, they were as lost as he was, recommending things like putting chicken manure, lime, ashes and chemical inputs.
“I did my own research, invested in books, read different schools of thought and tried them. I picked the most practical techniques, made lots of observations,” Acosta said. In the end, he decided that the best answer was what ancient farmers knew all along: that nature knew best and provided everything a farmer needed to nurture his crops.
In this discovery, Acosta also knew there were some interventions needed to simulate what nature used to be. Times have changed and it has become a different world from the time of old farming ways. Much of the region’s topsoil had been eroded by landslides and heavy rain. He pointed out that the recent rains that lasted a week just washed away 30 years of nature’s work.
“That’s how long it takes to have an inch of good topsoil,” he said.
And there’s soil acidity caused by chemical saturation of soil.
There was a need to keep nourishing the soil. In his own farm, Acosta said, it took a few years to get a rich, all-natural soil.
In the natural process of ecology, leaves fall to the ground, other vegetation die. All these decompose and become nourishment for new vegetation, he said. But for practical purposes, he had to hasten this simple technology.
“We transport the process to our pile,” he said.
Forget about NPK soil tests and chemical farming. Science has made it complicated and confusing to farmers, Acosta said. He depends solely on wild vegetation to nourish his soil.
In fact, while chemical farming regards weeds and grass as pests and have come up with herbicides to give farmers an easier time with clearing fields, Acosta said weeds and grass are really a farmer’s best friends.
Acosta is the first to advocate an all plant-based foundation for teaching organic farming. He said that in the beginning, he also tried animal manure, but when he shifted to just grass and weeds, he was happily surprised to see the sharp change in the quality of his vegetables. Using grass and weeds to fertilize his vegetables also provided a great advantage in avoiding E. coli contamination which comes from manure.
In 2005, the town of La Trinidad, known as the “Salad Bowl of the Philippines,” was looking for ways to enhance its vegetable industry, its prime economic mover. Acosta then had already begun a regular weekend organic market which had a niche market made up of a handful of “converts” who believed in the system that he started.
Nestor Fongwan, then mayor of La Trinidad, encouraged the “converts” to form a cooperative and to further train farmers to increase the produce of organic vegetables and help save the ailing industry which has been reported to be constantly sprayed with harmful chemicals.
Acosta advocated for the zero use of chemicals and go the natural healthier path. With his small group of organic farmers, the La Trinidad Organic Producers (Latop) was formed. Today Latop is practically synony-mous with Acosta. A prerequisite to membership is a hands-on training at the Master’s Garden.
Acosta’s aim is to reduce farming to its lowest cost as many farmers have fallen deeply into debt due to the heavy use of chemical inputs. Traders usually lent farmers all the inputs which farmers paid back come harvest time, with the traders dictating farm-gate prices. Typhoons, pests and diseases could also wipe out an entire crop and leave a farmer heavily indebted.
Acosta’s workshop starts on Day One on what a good soil is like. He challenges farmers to account for the cost of a sack of chemical inputs to a day of labor for cutting down weeds and grass. Weeds and grass are then cut into small pieces. Acosta explains that leaves and grass have a natural protective coating harder for microorganisms to penetrate. “Cutting them into smaller pieces provides more entry for the microorganisms.”
Though cutting up these weeds and grass material can be done manually, Acosta recommends for any serious organic farmer to invest in a mechanical shredder, which is practically the only one-time expense needed to run a sizable farm.
At the start, Acosta used EM-1 to hasten the decomposition of foliage to be used as compost. EM-1, an all-natural certified organic product, evolved in Japan and has been in use all over the world for 50 years. In the early 1980s, a horticulture professor at the University of Ryuku, Dr. Teruo Higa, popularized an EM-1 formula that included lactic-acid bacteria, phototropic purple nonsulfur bacteria and yeast for agricultural use.
EM-1 hastens the composting of garden debris, a strategy Acosta successfully employed in his garden that soon turned into a model farm.
EM-1 was also not much of an expense compared to chemical inputs, but Acosta wanted to achieve zero costing in producing soil nourishment from local resources. “I studied the models of composting and found that soil was a constant, layered alternately with organic material such as leaves and weeds.”
Acosta then tried taking soil from a clean undisturbed area and used the EM-1 formula to produce his indigenous microorganisms (IMO), substituting the soil for the EM1.
The following is the formula: Mix one tablespoon of clean soil and one tablespoon of sugar or molasses and culture the mixture for seven days. Twenty-five milliliters of the culture is mixed to a liter of water and sprayed for composting plant cuttings.
“This can inoculate one ton,” he said.
The sugar increases the population of microorganisms in the soil mixture, which can hasten decomposition and in as little as two weeks the pile is ready as compost.
Acosta claims that with healthy plants the problem of pests and diseases is eliminated.
Healthy plants, like healthy humans, are more resistant to diseases, he explained. But for worms, Acosta explained some techniques have to be employed. The worms will have to be hand-picked or be confused by planting aromatic plants near crops such as celery near cabbages.
Acosta said that other insects don’t like healthy plants because of the turger pressure in its cells which are tough, like biting into a well-inflated tire for insects.
He said it is important that the pile to be converted into compost be protected from rain as the microorganisms break down the compounds in the plants and these simplified elements are easily leached by rain.
Acosta is also adamant about the careful selection of seeds. ‘They must be fresh, so don’t buy more than what you are using ” he insists. But a good seed does not even need good soil as the parent plant gives the best to its embryo to ensure that the species perpetuate.
The training he conducts, while involving technical learning, more importantly is meant to motivate farmers and create new habits in farming. The Latop method rapidly builds up soil, boasting of a year’s time to achieve top-grade soil.
Starting with only 26 members, Latop has now grown to 140. And hundreds of farmers have been trained in the Latop method.
Latop farms are subjected to surprise inspections to check if the strict standards are followed. But Acosta is confident that farmers who have practiced the Latop system for a while will never go back to traditional farming.
“Because it works! And it’s easy. It’s farming without the numbers, “ Acosta said.